Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Breakdown and Return to Nature - Bela Tarr's "Damnation" (1988)

Bela Tarr, Damnation (1988)

A film about loneliness and helplessness, Bela Tarr’s Damnation (1988) is carefully crafted to allow an audience to feel an emptiness; to notice a simple beauty, but a beauty that is combined with physical breakdown. The plot is not central. The length of takes, slow panning of the camera, music used, and careful crafting of sound in general seem to contribute most strongly to the dreamlike feel of the film as a whole, during which we embark on a metaphysical journey – a journey into “the hopelessness of things.”

The main protagonists of the loose plot are a lonely man and a married female singer who struggle with an affair that is hopeless from the beginning of the film. We get this sense particularly after one scene/take where the two have gone away together under the excuse of delivering a mysterious package, made love, and proceed to talk about their situation. Their conversation is highly stylized, but their movements and emotions seem to be completely natural. This is one of the subtle beauties of Tarr’s work – poetic, artificial language that becomes completely natural in contributing to the overall mood of the film. As the two talk philosophically about their condition and lives, we are reminded what the singer has already said about the affair – “my husband comes home tomorrow evening” – as the two talk, amidst the crisp interjection of sound produced by the woman eating a pickle, significant to the feel of the take as it seems to add an aura of frankness and harsh reality during this particular philosophical moment.

In an interview with Phil Ballard of Kinoeye, Tarr talks about his reasons for presenting his films so differently than more conventional, plot based/ action films saying, “The main thing is always how you can touch the people? How can you go closer to real life?” and “We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information.” We see the accuracy of these statements throughout Damnation, and, if attempting to focus too much on the details of the verbal communication or plot line, we become easily bored, focused on what action will happen next rather than what is happening “now” – in the real time long take.

What is perhaps most interesting to me, after reading the interview with Tarr, is that he denies being a philosopher within an artistic medium and that he does not accept the notions that the human condition is absurd or that his films are particularly bleak. He counters questions on these topics saying that he is not trying to draw any conclusions for viewers, but simply present a piece of the human condition for them to see, not to judge anyone or make any assumptions, and, that he feels an optimism in his work because the creative process is an optimistic one. These statements seem both accurate and odd to me at the same time as I think back on my experience viewing Damnation. While I agree that there are no conclusions really drawn, other than that life is full of conflict – of emotion, of circumstance – and that loneliness and existential thought on one’s experience of life is a part of it, I do not see the optimism that Tarr describes, except perhaps through an abstract understanding that others will come to recognize something of what it means to be human through his films.

The final scenes, of the after math of the previous night’s strange, dreamlike celebration and the man breaking down and barking at a stray dog after witnessing his lover having an affair with someone else are about destruction, physical breakdown. Concepts that I associate with a feeling of hopelessness and dark fate, but that Tarr seems to equate with a return to nature, stemming from man’s loneliness. There is no transcendence, just the experience of loneliness and the return to nature that becomes a possibility and a reality when the man is able to leave his society (which is itself broken down and searching for something).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cristi Puiu, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (2005)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is not your typical, glamorized glimpse into the medical world. It is filmed in long takes, each take unfolding in “real time,” with a hand-held camera, yet it is not your typical documentary either, aimed at framing a true story of epic proportion and complete with special narratives, interviews or voiceovers. Puiu’s second feature length film is not a documentary, but a highly stylized and scripted depiction of the death of a 63 year old man. There is nothing unordinary about his illness; he is not a special member of his community; there is no attempt to glamorize any moment. Instead, Puiu works to give us a “slice of life” in his story of Mr. Lazarescu; he presents something deep about the nature of life and death and the stark, fearful, confused moments that every individual faces at one time or another. Giving the film a documentary feel heightens our ability to look at it as a representation of reality, produced not only to comment upon the Romanian health system, but also on how individuals negotiate their lives and deaths, the limitations every person possesses.

As the film opens, we see Mr. Lazarescu in a cluttered apartment littered with cats. He is in some distress, which we learn more about as he calls a hospital to send an ambulance and chats with his sister on the phone about his illness. Mr. Lazarescu is isolated in his everyday existence and we get a feeling of his isolation as he conducts both of these phone calls; we hear only his questions and answers- his repetition of the facts surrounding his illness and justifications for continuing to drink in his current state. His neighbors come over but offer no real attachment to the man as they argue over who will accompany him to the hospital or whether or not it is necessary that anyone attend him. What I found compelling about the interaction of the husband and wife next door was in fact something that had nothing to do with Mr. Lazarescu himself. While the wife, Miki, appears to be doing her best to offer Mr. Lazarescu some healthy assistance – running to fetch medicine, bringing him food to help ease his stomach pains – she is constantly undermined by her husband, who presumably feels as if he has an authority over her as such. What is interesting about this is that it appears to be a natural fact of married life within the particular social environment of the film.

Again and again, power relations and social hierarchy play a prominent role in the action that unfolds. Another example of this hierarchy I speak of comes as the female ambulance attendant, attempting to offer whatever medical summation or description that she can in order to speed up the admitting time of Mr. Lazarescu at each hospital, is constantly ridiculed, though she seems to have more sense and authentic concern for the dying Mr. Lazarescu than any of the doctors. That said, it is in moments such as these that we realize how compelling and realistic the film is; within every social system there are hierarchies and procedures and they often limit the scope of the individual to reach a deeper human understanding of others or feel compassion for those who are misunderstood or ordinary. And yet, even the misunderstood, ordinary, lower-ranked citizens eat, sleep and die like everybody else. This is why The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is powerful: because it reminds all of us about the inevitability of death and the solitude of the human condition which makes it impossible for others to ever really access us. The doctors who have little time to spend or who are quick to judge the moral characters of patients are not evil or even especially careless; they are like all of us – individuals with their own concerns who cannot help but distance themselves from emotional attachments with people who they will eventually be forced to see die.

The film is visceral as well, though we don’t get many shots of graphic content, because we slowly witness Mr. Lazarescu’s decline as if we were sitting in the room with him, knowing that he was about to die. It is a devastating reality of life to confront mortality and Mr. Lazarescu may remind us of any loved one who has suffered a similar fate; in fact, anyone who has suffered a similar fate. Most of all, we know that some day we will suffer a similar fate – death, no matter how it comes to us. We feel sympathy for Mr. Lazarescu because we acknowledge this, while acknowledging the film’s style (probably on a more subconscious level), which forces us to think in terms of reality over the fantasy world often constructed by films. Here there is no particular honor in death or heroism in those who aid it; we simply see what we see.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lucian Pintilie, "The Oak" (1993)

Pintilie’s The Oak (1993) is a film made to reflect the memory of Communist Romania. Set in the 1980’s, a time when Romania was one of a very few countries to remain Stalinist, it provides a fragmented, yet telling (perhaps somewhat through exaggeration, though I would have no way of knowing to what extent) view of a country in which, as mentioned in Caufman-Blumenfeld’s article, anything could happen from one moment to the next.

Though there is no real sense of a cohesive plot in the narrative telling of the film, there are elements which are consistent throughout. For example, there is anger in the main female protagonist, Nela, which cannot be tamed. It is the anger of the lack of proper medicine under the Stalinist regime; the anger of her father’s death and the questions of his heroism it invites; the anger and resentment for her sister and for the condition of her world, where even civilian children were not spared from violence and death as long as their deaths served some broader political purpose, such as stopping protestors at any cost. Nela’s grief often illustrates some irony of or conflict between the competing notions of communism and capitalism throughout the film. For example, she cremates her father when she discovers that due to lack of refrigeration facilities under her current government (as there was lack of nearly everything necessary to survival and health maintenance), her father’s wish to donate organs to medical research could not be fulfilled. Directly before we see detailed sequences of her father in the fire, the camera focuses on a sign which reads: “Eternal glory to those who died, fighting capitalism.” However, in the first scene during which we see her father’s ashes, they are contained in a glass Nescafe instant coffee jar – a glaring example of capitalism (as pointed out by Caufman-Blumenfeld as well).

It is as if the main crisis for Nela throughout the film lies in discovering who her father, who she had absolutely adored growing up, really was. Along her journey, which finally leads to uncovering the truth of what kind of man her father really was, she viscerally experiences the worst her country has to offer in terms of violence and corruption. Nela is raped and treated as less than human at times; she is also treated well when discovering connections to those in power, but is frustrated by limitations on the exercise of individual power within such a strictly ordered Stalinist system.

Near the end of the film Nela visits her dying mother in search of answers that her sister promises her she needs to hear. Her father was a member of the secret police, who, while working for the underground resistance, began looking for traces of Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side. The most devastating truth of all, however, concerns why her father put his arm on the train tracks to avoid going to the front to fight during WWII. Nela had believed, and told others that if her father didn’t want to go to war it was because he held onto his ideals so strongly and must have had a deep reason for avoiding it; she finds out that in reality, he was simply a coward. These disturbing facts illustrate that Nela has never really known her father, yet she is and continues to be extremely emotionally tied to him. At the film’s close, we see Nela burying her father’s ashes under an oak tree, along with burning pictures of her sister and the gifted children she has been working with as a psychologist, who we assume may have been the children who perished in the school bus hostage situation, during which the local party secretary gives orders to open fire on the bus, without any concern for the children aboard. It is as if she is burying the myth of justice and honor along with the innocence of the children who have been murdered; none of these qualities can describe the Ceausescu era in Romania. In addition, the burial of these specific people and the memories of them may allow Nela to move past this period as communism begins to decline and there is something to hope for.

This idea of there being something to hope for may be more clearly expressed by the final statement Nela and Mitica make about having children together – that with the two of them, they are bound to have either a genius or an idiot, but that the worst thing that could happen would be for them to have a child who was average. Perhaps this may be their final statement as they turn their backs on communism and ideals of social equality that can never be successfully achieved in reality. After all, under communism, the goal was to be “normal”, on equal par with everyone else. And, since during this time increase in birth rate was extremely important to the Romanian nationalists, Nela’s baby could represent a new generation for Romania, one with a drastically different political vision.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Eastern European Women Directors Discussion 2: Agnieszka Holland's Angry Harvest (1985)

Agnieszka Holland – Angry Harvest (1985)


Agnieszka Holland’s Angry Harvest (1985) may not frequently be referenced in terms of the portrayal of women in Eastern European film or films by Eastern European directors in general. However, though the film centers around a male figure undergoing several crises during WWII, including harboring a Jewish woman he finds in the woods hiding, after jumping from a train bound for a concentration camp, and may be most aptly compared to Klos and Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street (1966), there are certain details of it that allow for a feminist, or woman centered analysis of it.

In Angry Harvest, Leon Wolny is a hardworking farmer who happens to find Rosa Eckart in the woods and takes her in, hiding any traces of her from neighbors who could turn him in to the Gestapo. During the course of her hiding, however, Rosa appears as a weak, helpless, desperate woman just trying to survive through her captivity, rather than just a woman who is being helped or hidden. I bring forth these observations because Leon frequently treats Rosa as if she is his rag doll, there to give him some sort of pleasure and enjoyment, but not worthy of any true compassion. He hides her to save her from execution, yet he treats her like an animal as the film progresses; it is almost as if his hiding her is a selfish act done either so he can have her in his possession at all times or so that he can ease his conscience. It is almost as if we could picture Leon thinking that whatever he does to disrespect Rosa is ok because she is a woman and a Jew and he is ultimately saving her anyway.

This depiction I have set forth, however, presents some ideological problems to the film’s concept as a whole, though, because the audience identifies with some of Leon’s demands on Rosa as being necessary to her and his safety. For example, there is a scene where Leon lets Rosa outside after days of hiding in the cellar. As she marvels at the sun, gun shots are suddenly heard in the distance and Leon explains that they are coming from the woods and that if she were found hiding, if anyone were to see her outside, that both she and Leon would be similarly shot – one for being a Jew, the other for hiding one. Here we sympathize with Leon, who we may have previously come to identify solely as a lustful, controlling male out to dominate Rosa with rules that keep her locked in the cellar.

As for a more specific and detailed analysis of Rosa herself, within her situation of hiding, it seems as if she is willing to accept Leon’s view of her (possibly women in general) and to follow his demands in order to survive. A vast majority of shots involving Leon having sex with Rosa are not undercut by Rosa’s facial expressions of agony, or her body struggling to resist. Yet, as the film continues, Rosa seems to grow complacent and to accept her condition, hoping that one day she will find her husband. What does this say in terms of assigning a feminist meaning to the film? One possibility is that Rosa is consciously choosing to submit to a man with greater power in hopes of creating agency for herself later, when an opportunity arises; another, is that she does not hope for agency in the future but believes that she is being treated as women of her condition, paired with a more powerful, non-Jewish man, could be expected to. In either case, it is clear that Rosa begins to be less opinionated and less rebellious toward Leon as the film progresses. And yet, something very peculiar happens at the ending – Rosa does take control of the direction of her life, even though her actions turn tragic by the film’s close.

Rosa commits suicide because Leon was going to send her to live with another family for fear that her hiding in his cellar had been discovered. The tragedy lies in the fact that her husband comes looking for her at Leon’s door just after he has discovered her lying in blood, her wrists slit. Leon lies to her husband, telling him that she had left about a month ago in search of her husband; that she had gone back into the woods. The facts of Rosa’s suicide both support and further complicate my claim that Rosa was just trying to survive in Leon’s home, in hopes of being able to create agency for her self at a later date. Her suicide can be viewed as an act or agency in itself; she finally took control of her circumstance, deciding that she could not continue to live locked in the cellar, a slave to Leon. However, this is complicated by the fact that Rosa probably would not have killed herself if she had hope that she would continue to stay with Leon until the end of the war.

Our question is this: was she so distraught about leaving because she had formed some type of attachment to Leon or because it would be more difficult for her husband to find her in a more distant town? Was her reasoning some combination of these two? It is difficult for us to quite answer this, just as we may not know exactly how to feel when Leon tells Mr. Eckart that he loved his wife very much. There is no clear cut answer to any of our questions about Rosa’s motives or Leon’s love for her. The only sense that I got which led me to come to some of these conclusions about the importance of Rosa having control over her death, was that in the end Leon realized his own inner darkness and could not easily reconcile with himself over the way he knew Rosa and his selfish, lustful reasons for holding his power before her while she stayed in his house. The film ends with a close-up of Leon’s absent face, his blue eyes almost shining, but filled with complete emptiness, even as he reads a letter thanking him for helping Rubin’s (a man he refused to help while he was alive) daughter by paying her the debt he owed her father. He had helped her, along with Mr. Eckart to make it to America and begin a new life, yet there is a deep sense that his personal anguish over Rosa’s suicide will never subside. It is as if Rosa holds the power over his happiness just as he did over hers while she stayed with him. The only difference is that Rosa refused to let Leon control her ultimate fate, whereas, perhaps Leon will never be able to forget the weight Rosa has brought upon his soul (due to how he treated her in life, too concerned about himself to offer sympathy, compassion and genuine respect to her).

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Wounds – Srdjan Dragojevic (1998)

“Like the old days were any better. Romanticization will kill you.”


Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Wounds (1998) is a carefully crafted, highly stylized, visceral portrayal of extreme nationalism and ethnic war within a nation. Before we see a single image, we begin to feel as if something apocalyptic or especially telling of an era of destruction is about to be given to us, from a particular point of view – this dedication opens our look into Serbia, 1991-1997: “This film dedicated to the post-Tito generations.” After the dedication, the first scenes we witness are from the year 1997. Pinki and his friend Kraut are established Serbian gangsters and Serbia itself is presented as pure chaos. Quick, montage-style cuts are made, along with the use of special camera techniques to give a sense of the confusion and heightened emotion of the time. As was brought up in class, this looks like a typical gangster film, comparable to the works of Scorsese in it’s stylization and dramatic cuts; there is a depressing, nihilistic, and utterly nonsensical (to some outside the Serbian nationalist culture) story to be told though the excesses and impulsive rhythm.

The film flashes back and forward in time to tell the story of Kraut and Pinki’s initiation into Dickie’s gang, but there is never a hint of nostalgia about the past, even the past of Tito. There is only what is happening now and how one can survive it. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is that gang life seems the only way to survive the present for both young men. Those who do not fight and fight physically, with guns instead of expert mental strategy or the use of money to buy power, do not, in many cases, survive. Such is the case with one of Pinki and Kraut’s rivals who tries to bribe them, but cannot escape the impulsive, trigger happy young men.

The type of gang violence we see in The Wounds is out of pride, machismo, and principle alone, rather than just wanting to be rich or famous – it is about power and superiority of one’s ethnic group. Even the pride involved with romantic rivalries is commented on as Kraut and Pinki grow jealous over one another when Lijdia shows them both sexual attention. Kraut kills Lijdia out of principle – because Pinki asks how she is, reminding him that she is stressing their loyalty to one another – and allows Pinki to give him the same five wounds that he previously inflicted on Pinki in a jealous rage over her attentions.

It was also pointed out that Kraut and Pinki appear to imitate American gangsters and that they are not believable “tough guys,” but rather, kids who are playing the role of gangster. I read this as a harsh reality of the particular situation Kraut and Pinki find themselves in as kids trying to make sense of the politics of their ethnically torn country and desiring to become legendary examples of Serbian superiority. They are not believable because they are role playing, and the scariest thing of all is that they do not allow themselves to think before killing. By making everything just another childish game (with guns) they may not have to face up to the reality of what their actions are doing to perpetuate violence and destruction – it is simply what they do, the killing, as if they know no other reality than this dark fantasy world where they are the main heroes.

What conclusions can we really draw from the fact that the film does seem to draw on a tradition established in Hollywood? And, does the film romanticize the life of the nationalistically charged gangster, though the message is clear that “romanticization will kill you?”

Nearly every character we are introduced to (with the exception of Pinki’s mother) has either been killed or killed themselves by the final scene of the film, in which we see the bodies of Kraut, Pinki, and their “Croatian” peer shot to death, lying close together as if looking into the sky. Their romanticization of the life of gangsters did literally kill them; they may have been trying to be heroes, or just trying to survive, but this ending clearly brings the point home that there is nothing romantic about the Serbian situation during this period. As for any connection to America, or Hollywood, perhaps a statement is being made about how America is viewed by other countries attempting to define themselves and struggling to unite, especially in the importance of commercialism and sense of pride that these men of Dragojevic’s film are dying for. And, if each different section of another nation models itself on romanticized ideals of what it means to have power and freedom as Americans do, without mending the tensions between each section first, than those leaders of the different gangs are only fantasizing about their groups reaching positions of control individually, rather than making an attempt to establish goals for the entire nation to meet together. Perhaps this type of tendency to prove the most powerful, however, is a sort of backlash created from years of “brotherhood and unity” (when the reality was anything but).

Friday, March 30, 2007

Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy (2005)


“If I offer you hospitality, I have my reasons.”

The film opens on Jan Svankmajer himself, standing in front of a white background, plainly dressed, and addressing his audience concerning what they are about to witness in his latest release – Lunacy (2005). In his address he sets forth 3 models of control: absolute freedom, control and punishment, and the type which combines the worst aspects of the first two. He further describes this third type as “the madhouse we live in today.”

In order to depict the extremes of these three models, Svankmajer’s characters must be complex, tyrannical, gothic and insane. However, as the film progresses, the issue of sanity is played with a great deal. Before witnessing either the effects of adopting the philosophy of absolute freedom or that of control and punishment, we may not understand what the Marquis is attempting to do by bringing Berlot into his bizarre, sadistic, sexual world. We see him as a dark character, appearing to be just as mentally ill in his sadistic treatment of patients as the patients themselves are. We may question: “What is he getting at with all his talk of liberty that in reality does nothing but further oppress the patients he is supposed to be liberating?” It is important here to point out that absolute liberty cannot be liberty for all, since the ability to act however one feels and has the means to act toward others necessarily hinders the liberties of those who do not possess equal power. The Marquis offers Berlot his hospitality and gives the patients complete, unstructured “freedom” (though if they really were free, they would not remain in the hospital, obeying his every command) so that they will feel indebted to him – ready to obey his commands in exchange.

It can be argued that the Marquis and the original psychiatric doctor he overthrew are one in the same as far as where their logic about treating the mentally ill is concerned. The Marquis inflicts psychological pain by brainwashing his patients into adopting his views on the state of the world, which he uses time and again to justify the ways he exploits others. A good example of this in the film is the scene when Berlot tells the Marquis that he saw what he did last night – which he had considered to be sexually abusive/exploitative and blasphemous. The Marquis answers him by offering his logic on the non-existence of God and the idea that nature is evil and destructive and as a result, to be evil and destructive is more closely tied to nature than believing in a “mythical God to grant wishes.” However, I will argue that this use of the logic of destruction is no madder than the conventional doctor’s methods of inflicting bodily pain to weaken the body to return to a balance between the body and the mind. This flip- side to absolute freedom supports strict control over the flesh, using physical pain to condition patients to behave a particular way. Both approaches are, at the heart of the matter, concerned with molding others according to one set logic and idea of the way the world should be – that of whoever is currently in charge.

We can imagine, then, by thinking about the most horrific actions of both the Marquis and the original doctor, what a combination of both approaches would lead to – the absolute freedom of a select few to execute whatever control and punishment techniques, mental and physical, necessary to maintain “order”, perhaps? A survival of the fittest devoid of all aspects of what we consider “morality”? Complete chaos.

So, after considering all three options, which should we choose to avoid living in a societal “madhouse” and is it even possible to avoid any of the three, that is, to actually choose which approach to endorse? Is attempting to negotiate with such theories simply a game of choosing the lesser evil? These questions may never be answered. Indeed, they are not answered throughout the film. While Berlot was initially convinced that the Marquis was a madman and that the only way to restore order was to re-instate the original director, in the final scenes of the film he is horrified to witness the gruesome physical treatments the doctor performs. There is also a final irony – the doctor that Berlot literally set free and reinstated is precisely the man who now holds the power to limit his freedom to leave the institution, which he had initially entered of his own free will.

But it is not only the way we see Svankmajer’s actors showing us bizarre rituals and after-effects of bodily punishment that forces us to confront deeper philosophical issues about the treatment of the mentally ill and the power divisions of society, there is another important component of this film which I have left out of my discussion completely – all that meat.

Upon a first viewing, it comes as quite a surprise – there are tongues jerking across the floor, pieces of butchered meat performing on stage, ground meat hatching from eggs and a final view of a perfectly clean piece of meat being suffocated by its cellophane wrapping in the supermarket. The first time I viewed this film, I did not know what to make of all the meat. While many of the actions performed by the animated meat seemed to directly comment on the scene either directly before or after the particular interlude, some were more abstract and difficult to identify. And then there is the question of why meat was used at all – particularly the different types of meat shown. Perhaps the meat metaphorically represents flesh and the desires of the flesh to be free, to directly express itself and also, paradoxically, to be controlled (manipulated as stringed marionettes), but only so far as to maintain some illusion at least of autonomy. After all, the final, most horrifying depiction of the meat is that of it neatly wrapped, pulsating as if longing to break free. Perhaps the meat represents an ever present conflict between unbounded desires of the flesh and the need for control over the flesh so as not to bring it to complete destruction. There are, of course, other observations to be made and conclusions to be drawn about the film as a whole and what Svankmajer was attempting to make us realize, though from his interview, it seems he would be more fascinated by the possible differing conclusions to be drawn than attempting to explain the specifics of his vision and motivation for making this film.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

When Allegiance to One’s Country Contributes to That Very Country’s Erosion: Kusturica’s "Underground" (1995) and Tanovic’s "No Man’s Land" (2001)


At the heart of both Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land (2001), lies confusion and satirical comedy concerning the Bosnian – Serbian wars of the 1990’s and the history of political positioning of Bosnia and Serbia dating from WWII to the ‘90s. Neither film seems to logically explain the conflicts or give a clear depiction of the politics motivating the many states, including Bosnia and Serbia. Instead, we become spectators who see blatant corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, always skeptical of what knowledge we are gaining about the wars. Each film, after all, is likely holding back or deliberately working to shape a particular view and, with no direct experience to anchor us, we may be described as similar to those kept underground in Kusturica’s film – unable to know any other reality than that which readily appears before us in each film and unsure of what to make of much of what we see.

No Man’s Land specifically focuses on war turned into media hype and sensationalism, humanitarian organizations that seem to be more for show than action and the pointlessness of war, in particular warring ethnicities of the same regions. For example, the English reporter who seems so dominated by the need to “seek out truth” in many scenes, is also clearly catering to studio officials back home who are working to shape a particular view of the war through the footage she sends. She shows little real sensitivity to the situation, wanting to interview both the Serbian and Bosnian men in the trench about whether or not they are responsible for the conflict; both are insulted and unwilling to share any details of their involvement in the war as a result of her sensationalist and illogical approach at gaining answers. Perhaps the most infamous scene for illustrating the futility of the conflict comes early on as Nino and Ciki demand (at gunpoint) that each other admit that it was their group that started the war. Whoever has the temporary authority of the firearm has his way, until his rival’s opportunity to gain the upper hand (by possessing the gun, or knife) presents itself.

One moment in particular struck and intrigued me; it incited me to more accurately understand the isolation of every other group present, but outside the direct Serbian-Bosnian conflict. During a scene in which Cera’s situation on top of the bouncing mine is being assessed by the UN staff present on the scene, we begin to hear a strange musical soundtrack. It is one of the most clearly remembered instances of the long duration of the entrapment within the trench because it is the only moment that has a musical soundtrack accompanying it. Up until this point in the film, all we hear as soundtrack are the firing of guns, the sounds of tanks, or the bugs in the background. Perhaps at first we begin to pay extra attention to what we are viewing because the soundtrack signals to us that this is an important sequence. However, our perceptions are shattered as we see a UN officer remove his headphone and with it, the music disappears; the official could not have been more distant (and neither could nearly any of the UN officials with the exception of the one who first answered the call for aid) from the cause he was involved in – attempting to save a Bosnian life. I will not however, assert that No Man’s Land sides more strongly with either the Bosnian side, as we gain sympathy with Cera or the Serbian side, as there is no possibility of rescuing his life. It does not side with the media pursuing “the truth” nor does it side with the French UN officials who respond to the initial situation. It is a film which takes no sides and offers no hope for any involved, and yet it is also darkly humorous in many instances. Like Kusturica’s Underground, there is the sense that nobody really knows what is going on or why, yet everyone wants to be involved – either to assert that they are in the right, or to witness the senselessness.

The difference is that, in Underground, the people kept (literally) in the dark do not know that they do not really know what is going on; they place complete trust in Marko’s reports back to them about the outside world. They are controlled by the only media they know – Marko – and they want to be involved in the fight against the Nazis by manufacturing weapons for his distribution. The ending of Underground is especially intriguing from a critical or theoretical point of view. Unlike No Man’s Land which ends with a final look at Cera, unable to be rescued, lying in the trench, Underground ends with yet another drunken banquet, albeit a much more reserved one than witnessed throughout the film, where everybody who has died or had a physical limitation has been restored. At last there is no corruption, it is a utopian existence. But, one cannot forget the final shot, guests happily chatting and dancing while the land they stand on literally breaks apart from the rest of the country, as if to say: these people have lived a lie and opportunistically betrayed one another and thus have no country, no national unity. Yet still, there is an inescapable need to look back nostalgically at the unity that once was, even if it was proven later to be false. As was stated in class, the country was a lie, but was still lamented and nostalgically idealized upon its destruction. Perhaps this is because dealing with being considered a non-nation may be one of the most difficult things to do, to have no national unity, no definition of oneself in terms of where one came from.

Perhaps the final similarity between Underground and No Man’s Land is that both comment on the need to uphold one’s particular alliance with one’s own kind against some other evil, whether perceived or real. This becomes tragic when the very principle of upholding ones nation is precisely what is tearing it apart.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Eastern European Women Directors - Discussion 1: Vera Chytilova - "The Fruit of Paradise" (1969)

Knowledge, Enlightenment and the Truth We Don’t Want to Accept: A Discussion of Chytilova’s The Fruit of Paradise


Vera Cytilova’s 1969 film, The Fruit of Paradise is complex and problematic to critics who attempt to view it from any particular vantage point while avoiding the analysis of it in other contexts. For example, though there are feminist (even if Chytilova would have never used that term to describe her work) overtones throughout the film, reading it in its entirety as thoroughly concerned with gender and the role of women would be too simplistic. In “Can We Live With the Truth?”, an article appearing in Central Europe Review, Daniel Bird reminds us that a major focus of the film is with truth and that there is no concrete evidence within to suggest that it celebrates a nihilism resulting from the knowing of a truth that we do not want to be able to comprehend or to believe is indeed the truth of our existence.

The Fruit of Paradise opens with a visually intriguing retelling of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The first images we see are much more reminiscent of photographic slides quickly switched, juxtaposing a variety of plant imagery of various shapes and colors. Adam and Eve walk across, holding hands, and barely stick out with their almost transparent bodies merging with some of the plant textures. It is this sequence that may remind us most of Daisies – there are vivid colors, and the pace at which new images bombard us is overwhelming, almost assaulting. The climax of the retelling comes as the narration tells us: “And the serpent said to the woman: Ye shall not surely die!” Immediately, we are again shown various close-ups of plants, but they have a reddish cast to them, as if filtered. When Eve appears again, the narration of the serpent continues (or the narrative retelling of what the serpent said, rather): “On the day ye eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing both good and evil.” After this, “tell me the truth” is repeated as a chant, while we see Adam and Eve holding hands and struggling with one another – pulling each other forward, backward, side to side. The colors and textures of the background continue to change, forming a complete aesthetic “chunk” of material for us to process, along with the chant and intense (religious sounding) music.

The next big cut occurs as if to signal the fall as we see a gray, drab, deserted chunk of landscape before seeing an apple fall. Eva, sitting beside her sleeping husband under a tree, catches it. Now a more whimsical music plays and there is a shot reverse shot exchange between Eva and Robert, a man clothed in a red jacket as bright as the apple Eva seductively bites into. Eva asks her husband, “who is it?” and he replies by asking her what she is eating. In this scene, as in many throughout the film, Eva appears innocent, almost child-like in dress and mannerism. But after eating the apple, she becomes more inquisitive, seeking Robert out and observing him as he plays with various women. Robert, clothed in red and seductive, reminds us of Satan, or perhaps the serpent, challenging the women and appealing to their desires.

The pivotal moment of the film occurs when Eva notices a key, on the sandy beach of the resort or vacation destination, which has fallen out of Robert’s pocket. When he pays no attention to her signaling him about the key, instead continuing to flirt and play with the other women, Eva walks off with it, eventually using it to unlock a cottage. Once inside, she frantically searches; we do not know what she is looking for, but she opens several dresser drawers containing various items, including what looks like fruit, possibly pomegranate seeds (which could, according to myth, symbolize the forbidden fruit in itself, adding an element of temptation). After exploring the drawers, Eva finds Robert’s briefcase and opens it, finding a rubber stamp inside and stamping herself on the thigh with a red number six.

The scene of the discovery of the briefcase has an ominous, disorienting aesthetic to it. The camera movement is jumpy, as if hand held, which adds tension, along with the use of tilts and high and low camera angles. There are also alternating cuts between Eva exploring the cottage and Robert and the others of the resort on the beach – playing, flirting, and even searching for the lost key. It is also important to note that the color of the six is red and that six is considered the number of the beast. Once Eva stamps herself, she cannot rub it off, no matter how hard she tries. This may be symbolic of her gaining knowledge of evil and submitting to its seduction. What began as an innocent exploration and curiosity has grown into something more for Eva – it has led her to discover lust and evil. This becomes clear as we find out, when Eva returns to the beach, that there is a murderer on the loose who has been stamping his victims with a red number six. Literally, those who gain knowledge of evil die, as Adam and Eve believed they would upon eating the forbidden fruit, and indeed did in a sense as they became aware of evil and thus could not live the same, innocent life ever again.

It is also important to note that after begin stamped, Eva’s appearance and actions change dramatically. No longer dressed in white, she begins first to wear pink, and finally red, matching Robert, whom she continues to pursue, saying that she loves him. In one of the final scenes of the film, as Bird points out in his article, Robert tells Eva, “Everything is nothing but a dream. You are a lie.” While I cannot come to a definitive conclusion about the meaning of this sentence, it seems to signify that gaining knowledge goes hand in hand with losing the type of divine knowledge that may have been possible before there was knowledge of evil that clouds judgment and confuses human emotions and motives. Without the fall, the inner human crisis concerning salvation of the soul and the ability to distinguish between good and evil would not exist. Eva does not seem to notice that Robert is evil – he is seductive and intriguing to her. Eva lives as if in a dream, disoriented from her previous innocence, and not wanting to know the truth of evil that she has come into contact with and which has altered her. At the very end of the film, Eva tells her husband, “Don’t ask to now the truth, even I don’t want to know” after she kills Robert, and yet is not free from Satan because she has committed murder of him, who she had loved. Evil begets evil and cannot be eradicated; Eva must be expelled from paradise because she knows the truth of inherent human darkness.

I began this discussion with the assertion that there is no set reading that one can arrive at as far as the film’s thematic concept. This is because, though it is a story told to parallel the fall of man and the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, it cannot be summarized as a commentary on the deceptive qualities of women. Though at moments it seems this simple, such as when Robert tells Eva, “You’re the only one who came of her own free will”, we cannot overlook the role Robert, as a man portraying Satan, not a Satanic woman, plays in seducing her. We also must remember that Eva’s husband is portrayed as unfaithful to her, lusting after other women. In Eva’s relationship with her husband, she is not the only one unfaithful to the marriage, yet there is a double standard at work as her husband says, “Forgive me, I have sinned against you. But I did not know what I was doing.” Eva replies to his comment, “You’re my wife and I’m your husband” saying, “that’s not true” and is further questioned by her husband, immediately suspected of having someone else. There is a double standard at work here in that Eva is expected to forgive her husband, even though he cannot show her the same forgiveness. “You’re like him”, Eva tells her husband, “You’re all the same.” This statement directly compares Robert and Eva’s husband, and asserts that men in general have the evil of lust within them.

There are many more avenues to explore with this film; many more interpretations to test upon subsequent viewings. My analysis has only begun to touch on the themes Chytilova may have been considering. It is a complex film, and, contrary to her government’s belief that the film gave in to nihilism as a result of commenting on the inevitability of evil and the desire to keep the truth hidden so that the knowledge of this inevitability could not surface, the horror of truth at the end, and Eva’s expulsion from paradise clearly focuses on some moral framework; her end is not celebrated. As for a final comment on the feminist aesthetic, it too is conflicted – Eva is both empowered in her quest to actively seek out knowledge, yet is also a temptress and ultimately, an embodiment of evil (even if that evil equals that of every character portrayed, including that of her own husband).

For anyone who would be interested in reading more from the article I have cited in my analysis the address is: www.ce-review.org/01/17/kinoeye17_bird.html

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Simultaneous Social And Scientific Advancement - Ildiko Enyedi's "My Twentieth Century"

Ildiko Enyedi, My Twentieth Century (1989)

Ildiko Enyedi’s first feature film, My Twentieth Century (1989), is both cinematically beautiful and intellectually thought provoking and troubling. As mentioned in our class discussion, the film does not rely heavily on a linear plot as much as it expresses themes through juxtapositions and episodic portraits of situations that comment on each other. In isolation, any single “episodic part” would not tell us much about the messages and themes of the film as a whole; these themes are compounded through their repetition within different contexts. For example, the theme of freedom is perhaps the most prevalent throughout the film. It is depicted in terms of animals and symbols as well as through the freedom each of the twin sisters have or strive to possess.

As the film opens, we are reminded of the progress of Edison as he ushered in a new way of life with the invention of the light bulb. Bright bulbs fill the dark screen and we see a new freedom for mankind as he will continue to make technological advancements. Yet, at the end of the scene, the camera focuses in on Edison looking blankly into the dark, star lit sky. Voices are heard, telling him not to be sad, but to look toward, Europe – Budapest. There is a cut to a mother giving birth across the globe. As she holds her twins, we see a different, yet perhaps even more astonishing miracle, that of childbirth. The twins’ names appear below them: Dora and Lili, but any feelings of hope for a future full of possibility are complicated by the next, fated scene of the twins as young girls selling matches in the street. They fall asleep and chance has it that they be separated to grow independently from one another, exerting different levels of freedom and operating under different conceptions of femininity in their opposite environments.

We do not see the girls again, until the turning of the century when they both board the Orient Express and we notice that Dora has grown into a materialistic and sexually manipulative woman while Lili has devoted her life to political activism and blushes at the glance of a man. The two women could not be more opposite, but their opposition does not fully speak to the furthering of the freedom of women because it only represents two notions of women – as either virgin or whore, while a truly free and independently meaningful woman would be a complex combination of both.

The sequences/episodes of the dog being tested and caged all of his life and then set free and of the monkey fascinated with man’s grimace, who is captured comment on the lives of the twins who have, by chance been caged within certain parameters by being defined as either virgin or whore. After hearing the Weininger speech, Lili illustrates how deeply women can be trapped within their own lives, questioning whether they are anything by their own nature, totally absent from men or living according to a man’s influence. It is almost as if they opposite lives of the twins is an experiment in finding the nature of woman – they each deal with men and independence in different ways, but ultimately, neither possesses the freedom they seek; Dora cannot be free because she depends on using her sexuality to manipulate men and economically support herself; Lili is not free because she devotes herself entirely to politics and wonders whether women do have any identity of their own or if it is true that “the absolute woman has no self.” The end of the film suggests that the true woman embodies aspects of both virgin and whore and that this realization is just as necessary to the progress of mankind as any new technological advancement.

The final statement of the film is a bit troubling to me. We return to the shots of Edison, asked to talk about the telegraph and one statement in particular stands out: “The world, which was created by God, is magnificent. And man, who has learned to shape it, is also magnificent.” The fact that this comes directly after Z’s realization that he desires a woman who is both virgin and whore seems to suggest that man has learned that woman is not capable of being rigidly classified, or at least has begun to notice that she has a nature of her own and that his perception of her must be shaped according to that reality. However, the statement relies heavily on “man.” Man is responsible for shaping his world, while woman continues to hope for new possibilities in future generations (suggested by the return to the twin birth scene from the beginning of the film), according to an alternate reading of the statement.

Friday, March 2, 2007

"Decalogue: Five" and "A Short Film About Killing" - Similarities and Differences in Perception

Krzystof Kieslowski, A Short Film About Killing (1988)

Even though, or perhaps even because Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) deals with so many simultaneous and opposing themes, such as ethics and revenge, darkness and love and the question of who is responsible for any action a human being makes during his lifetime, it is also one of the most striking and beautiful from a cinematic viewpoint. The colors are surprisingly vivid, even in their greenish, yellow or grey cast due to what appears to be an extensive use of filters throughout the shooting of the film. There is dark shading around the frame, a shadow that looms over nearly every character we are introduced to, initially unaware of how their fates will intertwine. There seem to be symbols everywhere, though it is unclear if any of them really “mean” anything. I do not say this to argue that Kieslowski has carelessly placed a single object, but, rather, to point out that he leaves it up to the individual to interpret what he places within the frame for themselves; it all has a kind of random feel to it, as if these are just random, chance objects to be found in the everyday lives of those portrayed. Looking from this approach, we cannot rely too heavily on a devil’s head hanging from a taxi’s rear view mirror for too many clues.

In addition to special lighting conditions and the use of filters and shading effects, Kieslowski also shoots with dramatic camera angles and camera placement to frame and give a feeling of darkness or inner conflict to his subjects. I found it easy to compare the techniques he uses in A Short Film About Killing to photography. Jacek’s face, often filing the entire frame, and shot using a low camera angle and dim lighting conditions, appeared the perfect portrait of sadness and isolation from the first shot we see of him until his agonizing last facial expression.

All of these things seem even more dramatic when comparing the short, one hour version, Decalogue: Five, to the feature- length A Short Film About Killing. In the latter, we are given a greater depth and allowed to make a more emotional connection, though only from a distance as Kieslowski makes no attempt to give us enough information, in either version, to psychologically diagnose or make complete sense of the situation. Decalogue: Five employs few filter effects and contains less music and dramatically drawn out sequences. It also contains some dialogue and use of voiceover where A Short Film About Killing creates a similar effect solely through the use of visuals, allowing the viewer to decide more for themselves what to conclude rather than giving them a tight moralizing statement.

Subtractions from the early version to the later are most noticeable in the film’s beginning and ending sequences. In Decalogue: Five, a voiceover occurs as the film begins – “The law should not imitate nature; the law should improve nature. People invented the law to govern their relationships. The law determined who we are and how we live. People are free; their freedom is limited only by the freedom of others. Punishment means revenge, in particular, when it aims to harm, but does not prevent crime.” As this voiceover continues, we open on a shot of Piotr in front of the mirror, preparing for his interview to become a lawyer. In A Short Film About Killing, instead we immediately see a dead mouse and a hanged cat, standing out against a vile green background. We immediately get the feeling of sickness and perversion; the scene appears evil and as we begin to see each of the film’s characters for the first time, we get an eerie feeling, perhaps even suspecting that they will all be portrayed as disturbing, sick, perverse characters.

Similarly, during the final shot of Piotr in the field in his car with the door open after having lost Jacek’s case and witnessed his hanging, Decalogue: Five gives us a summation of his inner dialogue/outlook. Piotr leans out of his car, gripping the door and crying out: “I abhor it!” repetitively as the camera zooms in on him just before the final blackout. A Short Film About Killing makes up for the omission of the “final [verbal] statement” by leaving us simply with the image of Piotr in conflict with himself. Rather than hearing Piotr’s voice, we have only the haunting music, which has added tension through its calm melody throughout the film, to guide our perception of the events we have witnessed through his eyes.

Comparing the two versions of the same basic story proved to accentuate the differences, particularly those that altered my perception with each viewing. Examined closely, each seems to actively prepare the viewer to see capital punishment in basically the same light, yet at the same time, to view it while keeping subtly nuanced differences in mind. A Short Film About Killing is much bleaker, much more disturbing and much more initially perverse and repulsive than its predecessor. Kieslowski may have been attempting to work through ways to present his theme between versions and to have ultimately decided that greater power lies in less framing of character and directly conclusive statements. During viewings of both films, the same themes came through, just in different ways, the biggest difference being that A Short Film About Killing was less verbal and more open to the viewer to access through imagery that was often made to speak more dramatically than the words it may have been standing in for.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Commentary on Tensions Reaching Revolutionary Power - Provincial Actors (1979)

Agnieszka Holland, Provincial Actors (1979)

I found Angieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors (1979) to be one of the most difficult films, out of the selection we have drawn from in the past, to access. There are many complex and interesting tensions at work which are somewhat lost on me, even when applying what I know about the political situation in Poland in the 1970s. Initially as I watched the film, I attempted to compare what was going on between the provincial actors, conflicted over the way “Liberation” should be performed, with the Solidarity movement.

The late 70s was a time during which struggle and pride coincided in Poland. The Solidarity movement grew out of the need for Poles to better their conditions and to assert a national pride in the midst of communist occupation. When Chris asks, as the director continues to cut his lines in the play, “What’s ‘Liberation’ without the Polish cause?” he may be commenting on the need to remember Polish history and keep the cause for freedom alive. Chris in general struck me as a character embracing high ideals of liberty and freedom, especially concerning how Poles define themselves and “their Poland.” Though Holland completed this first feature film the year before the Solidarity movement gained its most monumental following, it seems as if Chris is anticipating the need for such a widespread following; his ideals seem like they could have been the base of the movement; his main goal, to put an end to the censorship of the theatre director and to convince the others, most importantly his wife, of the importance of banding together and fighting for artistic expression, which he feels has been completely drained from “Liberation.” Part of the overall tension and conflict in Chris seems to stem from the fact that others seem to support his views but will not speak up to change anything. As we pointed out/observed in class, the bickering tension between the actors never seems to pay off; there is no end triumph.

The Solidarity movement officially began in Poland in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980. The workers went on strike, locking themselves into the shipyards and members of the Solidarity movement rejected better personal treatment from the government until they could be assured that there comrades elsewhere were treated equally well. Shortly before the shipyard strike in Gdansk, strikers in the same city had been killed by police of the Communist regime. As the movement spread, the regime was forced into negotiations. However, in 1981 (December), martial law was declared. This was indicative of the loss of control the regime was subject to, as the only way to subdue the movement was through militaristic force.

Chris, by reciting lines that had been cut, embodies a similar spirit of rebellion and revolution, refusing to give in to censorship, apparently due to the need to please the “cultural department”, even though even his wife cannot understand why the role he plays is so important. It is as if he is setting up a revolution which nobody recognizes or responds to. This point is reinforced when the director tells Chris that he notices what he is doing, saying the cut lines, but that it does not matter because nobody else has even noticed.

Also interesting is the role of women within the film. First off, from the beginning, it seems as though Chris’s wife, Anna, does not subscribe to the same politics that he does. When he complains about the play and what it is becoming, she suggests that he quit/leave it if he does not believe in it anymore. She does not seem to be as sensitive to the political implications behind the rendering of the play that is allowed to be shown. At the same time, she is also a troubled character, ready for revolution yet trapped as a woman. Anna is often referred to as an intelligent woman, yet the only job that we see her doing (and possibly only because he husband is an actor) is playing a crow in a children’s puppet show. She is expected to obey her husband, and it goes unnoticed (or at least uncommented on) when they begin a feud and Chris slaps her on the cheek. By considering Anna’s social position as a woman, we may begin to see her in much the same light as Chris, but without the belief that liberation really exists. Perhaps her comment that “there’s no truth in it,” used to counter Chris’s frustration stems from her realization that for women, liberation is a more complex issue, as, even when liberated in the social sphere, the domestic situation for women did not reflect the same spirit of liberty.

One final point that I would like to make is that the suicide of the old neighbor is of major significance in beginning to think about the political implications of the film as a whole. I see his death as commenting on the entire system and as a representation of the end which all Poles who passively subscribe to it will face. His suicide comes directly after a scene in which he is describing the take-over of the militia in the town; symbolic of loss of liberty. He seems to embody desperation and loss of hope, whereas both Chris and Anna speak to the need to stop “towing the line” – Anna when she threatens to leave Chris and Chris both when he is finally able to reveal to her how much he loves and values her and when he refuses to abide by censorship.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Goran Paskaljevic, Special Treatment (1980)

An old man paces a street filled with vice repeating, “lottery, lottery.” There are men sitting idly by drinking. A woman stares at a glass of wine with hungry eyes. A prostitute turns the heads of men and refuses the old man saying, “no more for lottery tickets.” Then, suddenly, the woman staring at the wine grabs the glass, quickly emptying it. She rises from the table and steps onto the other, foggy side of the street. There is a cut and we see a train speeding toward her. Just before impact – the lights go up and we become aware that this was all an elaborate staging, rehearsed by “ex-alcoholics” who will go on a trip with their doctor, where their will-power will be tested as they tour a brewery, and ultimately perform to give a testimony to the evils and loss of freedom, much like flinging oneself in front of a train, that stem from alcoholism. This initial scene may perplex us at first, but it becomes increasingly apparent throughout the course of the film that it may be commenting on the nature of performance and hinting that things may not be as they appear on the surface.

I was immediately struck with an eerie feeling while watching the initial staging and after it was revealed that it was all just a rehearsal for a planned performance, I was further perplexed by the fact that it all appeared too real to be staged – the lighting conditions and effects could have never been reproduced as shown in the sequence, on a stage. This effect made me a little more cynical throughout the viewing of the film, always looking for the hidden meaning, not that it was particularly difficult to find in many cases.

The figure of the doctor is immediately set up as a dictator – what he says goes for the recovering alcoholics as he convinces them that the human will is what will set them free. For example, on the way to their destination, the patients are singing up beat, but common, saloon songs when he signals them to be silent. The doctor then turns on a tape and we begin to hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” – music that is monumental and sublime, and, as pointed out in class, was composed by the official composer of the Nazis, a fact that subtly comments on his actions enforcing control and lack of choice. The doctor has a typical dictator’s mindset that people do not make the best choices for themselves on their own and must be both allowed to take control of their destinies and to be made to do certain things, “for their own good.” Shortly after the music begins, the doctor states that it is snack time and that everyone gets an apple because “apples are therapeutic.”

Also believed to be therapeutic is the “good example” the doctor shows by ordering beer during a stop while all of the patients drink mineral water, acknowledging that they have no will-power and that they cannot stop themselves after one beer, only to spill it out before leaving, without taking a single sip. What the patients do not see is the hypocrisy of the doctor who goes inside with his son to the restroom, only to order and consume an entire beer before returning to the table outside. Politically, this sends the message that there is a great deal of show and propaganda on the part of the regime, yet corruption from within.

Also problematic is that the film does not seem to fully endorse one particular ideology. In some instances, the alcoholics are portrayed as more alive and free when they are drunk than when they are following the strict orders of what is essentially a corrupt dictator. I found the scene of the old man sneaking out to the van and injecting apples with vodka to be liberating as he passes them around as a gesture of rebellion and the power of personal choice (not that the others knew what they were choosing until they took the first bite, but none of them stopped eating). It is when they are drunk that they perceive themselves as free, like birds, repeatedly used as a symbol of freedom and beauty throughout the film. It is also when they are able to conquer their fears, just as the stuttering actor is able to finally recite his lines clearly. But, there is a downside to this freedom, the actor, after all does not stutter, but always forgets some of his lines and fear of the doctor and returning to order sets in soon after the period of freedom. Take, for example, the exercise scene after the apple sharing episode – the patients desperately attempt to discipline themselves for show because they fear the doctor finding out about their lapses in will-power.

In the end, even after the rebellion of the alcoholics makes a mockery out of the doctor’s speech, he continues to relentlessly strive for the never-quite-attainable ideal. On their way back home, the doctor states, “I trusted you and you betrayed me, but I’ll cure you. I’ll make you decent citizens if it kills me.” Here is another irony, the doctor may feel betrayed by his patients but he betrayed them all along after they (some more than others) trusted him and his unconventional treatment to the point that they temporarily gave up their own wills in order to gain the prestigious will-power.

In the final scene, the camera focuses on a flock of birds in the sky as the son of the doctor looks up in awe of them and we may remember an earlier discussion on birds between father and son when the doctor tells his boy that God made everything beautiful. “Even the birds?” the son asks and his father says yes. The son then comments on how the doctor taught him that humans evolved from monkeys as if to say that human kind is not inherently beautiful. Keeping this earlier scene in mind, while this particular way of ending the film could suggest several things, including a symbolic reference to the son as the next generation that will grow up to be just as corrupt as his father’s, to me, the end seemed to say: “Birds are beautiful and free. Humans will never achieve the same freedom because their nature is not beautiful.” This, I think, adds to the idea that even though the doctor is attempting to make his patients free, his methods cater to the dark side of mankind and, because of his own corruption, the beautiful end he is attempting to achieve will never be possible.

“Yugoslavian Stagecoach” (1939) – Hollywood Ending


Slobodan Sijan, Who is Singing Over There? (1980)

Slobodan Sijan’s Who is Singing Over There? (1980) has been described as the “Yugoslavian Stagecoach” often and it is not difficult to see why. Both films are about a journey; both feature an unorthodox and highly unlikely and problematic cast of characters forced to acquaint themselves with one another along the way; both have their stereotypes and archetypal, somewhat political characters, easily recognizable to the audience of their time and country of origin. However, there is one major difference between Who is Singing Over There? and Stagecoach: the Hollywood ending.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that Who is Singing Over There? is structured around the bombing of Belgrade on April 7, 1941, when the Nazis begin war with Yugoslavia. From the first scene of the film, we know that the events that are about to unfold occur just one day before this historical event. Tensions are intensified as we subconsciously (at least if we know the particular history) realize that the bus is on a journey without an end; a journey marked for disaster. In contrast, there is not as much of an aura of doom involved in Stagecoach as the passengers make their way in the tiny stagecoach, though they encounter danger along the way.

There is a sense of tension and danger lurking beneath the surface of things despite bureaucracy and in spite of Yugoslavia’s official slogan: “Brotherhood and Unity” as the characters of Who is Singing Over There? are constantly divided in their attitudes toward one another. For example, there is the old war veteran who bitterly reminds the others about what he has been through, serving his country; the Germanophile, obsessed with the progress in German medicine; the young, apparently clueless married couple who defy the ideas of structure and shame as they have sex in the woods with all the others voyeuristically looking on; the kooky son of the bus owner, excited by animals and portrayed as simple-minded, yet ultimately heroic in his willingness to join the resistance army against the Nazis; the aspiring opera singer trying to make it to his audition on time; the sickly older man; the overly authoritative and monopolistic owner of the bus who is constantly checking passengers for tickets and thinking up schemes, such as selling the only food available during the lunch break, to make a greater profit; and the two Roma musicians who are both a part of the group and also strangely apart from it, serving the function of a chorus throughout the film.

Around every corner is an absurd delay, which annoys the passengers but also seems to add to the tension as we perhaps hope that they will arrive after the bombing has already taken place, or even that they will arrive sooner and somehow be warned. It is as if their fate is to arrive just in time to be bombed as tensions amongst themselves reach a boiling point and the passengers begin to beat the two Roma, accusing them of stealing the old war vet’s wallet. There is an irony in this series of events: the country is bombed by the Nazis, despite its attempts to remain neutral in WWII, and just before, inside the bus, the passengers become enemies to one another, mirroring the fascism of the Nazis in their brutal treatment and stereotyping of the Roma. Even the sickly old man, who complains to a priest the group encounters along the way that nobody treats him with Christian kindness as a sick man, but avoids him because if his illnesses, is instrumental in the beating.

Despite the ways they are persecuted by the other characters of the film, however, I found the Roma to be particularly intriguing as they directly addressed me, singing their prophetic chorus about what was soon to happen. The beat of the music was lighthearted and optimistic even though they were singing of disaster, providing an interesting disjunction between music and lyrics and again, reinforcing the feel that the passengers are going through this journey blindly, oblivious to what will happen when they reach their destination, in spite of the warnings the lyrics provide along the way.

After the bombing, it is significant that the only characters who emerge from the rubble, still singing, are the Roma. Their final lyrics talk about the Nazis goal “to destroy humanity and make a new one.” This scene also seems highly ironic, and may be commenting on the fact that the Nazis will never succeed, because the Roma/Gypsies were among the first to be exterminated by the Nazis, yet within this film, were the only survivors of the bombing in sight. Even as it is somewhat of a triumph to behold the Roma still standing, the end scene is also true to the devastation the Nazis imparted on mankind, particularly specific, non-Aryan groups. The Roma sing, as the film ends, “The crazy Fascist beasts demolish all that was. I wish, mother, that I had but dreamt it all” (a line repeated at the end of every verse as the journey progresses). Though there is some satisfaction in feeling as if there is hope for humanity, symbolized by the survival of the Roma, there is certainly no hint of the Hollywood ending present in their looks of despair and wishes that this horror were all just a dream.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dusan Makavejev, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), has for me, from an ideological standpoint, been one of the most difficult films to understand. Perhaps this is because many of the allusions are lost on me; perhaps it is due to an incomplete understanding of what Makavejev is, through Wilhelm Reich, is really arguing for with respect to sexual and political liberty. Whatever the cause, just when I found myself drawing one particular conclusion or another as I viewed the film, a new image was placed before me that complicated my claim. Perhaps this is because, as Gary Morris states, “Reich was, like Makavejev, an unapologetic liberationist, disgusted by both communism’s hatred of creativity and capitalism’s idolatry of consumerism.” Makavejev never gives any definite conclusions, leaving it up to us to interpret the significance of specific juxtapositions.

In many scenes, it seems that the phallus is used as a stand-in idol, paralleled with consumer culture, that dictates political freedom or repression. I say this because imagery pertaining to ejaculation appears not only as a comment on war, with Tuli Kupferberg cocking his machine gun as symbolic of it, but also as a comment on the site of his action – New York City. Is Makavejev drawing a parallel between the commercialism of the U.S and the sexual desperation that causes both an increasing commercialism to flourish as well as a need for war? This seems to be the conclusion we are asked to draw, that capitalism thrives on repression, both political and sexual, and that communism liberates people from such repression.

Nothing in this film is so simply stated, however, for just as soon as we think we have discovered the message behind images of Stalin and of American advertisement and consumer culture/excess juxtaposed with phallic imagery and war-crazed ejaculation, we face the ending of the film, where Milena has been beheaded after achieving “a perfect orgasm” with Vladimir Ilyich. She dies in achieving sexual liberation, yet states, “even now I am not ashamed of my Communist past.” What exactly are we to conclude from this statement? Is liberation (Communism) dangerous in that it requires man to give up “control”, thereby leading to destruction? (Milena had to be destroyed because she made Vladimir lose control). If this is the case, then are we also being asked to consider that though Communism can lead to a loss in perceived control as part of the greater liberalization process, it is still favored to the maddening repression that capitalism feeds off of? Clearly both systems are flawed. The best way for me to think about these problems further is to examine them in light of one comment made in Owen Hatherley’s “I Still Dream of Orgonon”: “Above all, WR is an internal debate within socialism itself, against its repressive proponents and for its original promises.” (Where “repressive proponents” may be alluded to in the Vladimir character and “original promises” in Milena.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Marta Meszaros, Adoption (1975)

In Marta Meszaros’s Adoption (1975), there is one sequence, more specifically one shot, which for me condenses the entire film and collapses the world of Kata. The scene comes late in the film, just before the final few moments when we see Kata sign adoption papers and walk off with her new-found child, full of hopes for and perhaps uncertainties about the future. It is a shot that thematically comments on more than just the situation at hand. It is a shot of Anna, presumably on her wedding day, alone in the corner, staring out toward us with her dark, haunting eyes. It is the perfect example of how dreams can collapse in an instant and it comments on the need for a woman to stand alone sometimes in order to (ironically) live a fuller life.

Meszaros is a director interested in relationships among women and the expectations and plights of ordinary women. She was no stranger to gender inequality, attending film school in Moscow because it was “not easy for a woman” to attend film school in Hungary. According to the interview conducted by Andrew James Horton, Meszaros began her career hated by Hungarian officials for directly confronting problems under Communism through her documentary on the lives of poor Hungarians. Meszaros herself commented on her early work by saying: “The officials hated my film because it was about life under Communism, showing how it really was. But it was the truth—I captured the ordinary lives of these people and their problems. I did it many times.”

There is something brutally honest in her work, as literature about her suggests, that is openly displayed in Adoption with its critique on social understandings of familial relationships and women’s ability to have control over their daily lives. As the film begins, an immediate sense of isolation is felt. There is only a loud buzzing of an alarm and a solitary female figure preparing for work. There is music, but no dialogue; Kata is alone, as are all the women in the factory, working together, yet each at their own isolated task. A few shots later, Kata’s pulsating heart is heard as she waits for her doctor to finish a medical exam; as she waits to hear whether or not her health is good enough to have a child at the difficult mothering age of 43. Once cleared the only source of difficulty for Kata is that the man she loves (Joska) is married and will not agree to let her have his child because the child would not have a father. As they continue to talk about the issue, Joska tells Kata that, “if it hadn’t been for you, I couldn’t have managed,” as he has recently been through some tough times with his family. To him, Kata is expected to be strong and a source of reassurance and security. In another scene, he runs to her for comfort, or perhaps to get away from pressures he faces at home. Yet, there is the sense that Kata is not supposed to expect the same support from him. He will not agree to let her have his child, even if she will raise the child alone, and he alone dictates when and where they will meet. It is almost as if Kata simply accepts this as her fate, not expecting equality in her love life and resigning herself to the fact that it is her lot to never experience being a mother until she becomes involved with the young Anna who blatantly points out the emotionally repressive aspects of the relationship. “This isn’t right. You meet when he wants to; when he’s got the time. You ought to leave him”, Anna tells Kata in a memorable scene of the two women bonding over drinks and denying the men glancing their way dances in favor of establishing a strong womanly bond where each is able to be herself and assert herself totally.

Anna gives Kata someone to live for; a taste of motherhood and responsibility for someone who loves her back. Moreover, Kata works to bring Anna to what she thinks will be her happiness in marriage. All does not end as a fairytale, however, on a positive note. This brings me back to the scene I opened my discussion with. It hits the viewer like a personal violent blow when a quarrel begins during Anna’s wedding celebration and she is shoved by her new husband into a corner as he angrily walks away from her. The fairytale has come true for her, and yet she is alone. The wedding celebration scene in general is full of drama and heightened emotion. The women depicted in it all seem to be lonely, dreaming of the fairytale and crying either tears of joy for Anna or of pity for their own conditions as women before the scene of Anna alone. Anna is still trapped, and perhaps the message here is that often women must stand alone to achieve what they most desire.

If Anna’s fate is read in the light of trading means of entrapment and is generally indicative of the larger fate of many women who search to fulfill themselves in relation to men, Kata’s final action seems somewhat problematic in that she seems to abandon Anna even as she finally realizes her dream of motherhood. Perhaps Meszaros’s motive is to show her audience that women must find their own paths, not that they must necessarily be alone or isolated, but that the relationships they establish must be balanced in dynamics of power and security in order for all involved to be most productive and emotionally stable. Even this observation is also somewhat problematic because Kata does not really find her own path, but she also does not rely on a man to dictate it for her either. Rather, in relation to Anna, she is able to realize that she will become a successful single mother. Yet Anna, the apparently strongest woman, perhaps the representative of a new generation of womanhood in her power to assert herself and to build a strong relationship with her would be husband while guiding Kata in her process of higher self-realization, is left in the most ambiguous and isolated position at the film’s close. Perhaps this is because women continue to struggle with gender issues or perhaps because Anna’s society would not be comfortable with her complete victory without submission to men since acknowledging such a reality would contribute to the film’s overall honesty and Meszaros’s dedication to commenting truthfully on the society she sees and experiences; examining dynamics of women’s lives. Much of this is speculation, but there is undoubtedly a “feminist” yet slight counter-feminist aesthetic at work here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Peter Bacso, The Witness (1969)

Before viewing Peter Bacso’s The Witness (1969) for the first time, I was skeptical as to how a film about Stalinist-era Hungary could be successfully made into a comedy that Hungarian audiences, which may have witnessed the harsh oppression first hand, would endorse. However, as I watched I was amazed by the success of the comic element despite the fact that there was nothing funny behind what was going on in terms of the reality that the comedy was commenting on. In its Satire of the Stalinist system, The Witness also functions to educate audiences who may be unfamiliar with this period in history, not by being factually accurate in terms of plot, but by over exaggerating the manipulation of reality performed by the government and the harshness of the regime in order to illustrate absurdity, ridiculous and incompetence. It offers a harsh critique in its humor.

The plot centers around Jozsef Pelikan and his family as he finds himself in and out of prison for upsetting the regime in each new office he is given. In an early scene, Jozsef’s daughter comes to visit him in prison and tells him that his life depends on whether or not the officials want to “make an example of him” for performing the illegal slaughter of their pig to feed the family (the discovery of which, while I will not speak on it here, was fraught with irony and ridiculousness). Since his old war buddy, Virag, has a plan involving Jozsef as key witness in an upcoming show trial, however, he is released from prison accompanied with the official statement that “there was no pig, there has never been a pig.” I point to these key comments by Jozsef’s daughter and the legal system itself because although they add an element of humor to the film they only do so because we recognize that under the Stalinist regime, similarly ridiculous, yet totally humorless situations did arise; it was a regime so terrifying because men’s lives hung in the balance in the whims of those in charge.

Virag consistently plants seeds in Jozsef’s mind that the minister Zoltan could have been a spy against them, since, “the suspicious thing about spies is that they aren’t suspicious.” He does this so that Jozsef will testify, though all involved are very aware that the trial is for show alone, the testimony scripted. After all, there must be the appearance that a fair trial has been given before condemning a man, even if everyone knows that the trial was not fair or honest. The trial itself presents a problem to Jozsef as he cannot get the story straight and eventually ends up betraying everything with a sudden bout of truthfulness only to find himself back in prison, awaiting execution by the end of the film. Jozsef states several times before his trial that “he is just an idiot.” This may signify that he does not want to be a part of the politics that allow a man to adopt the suspicions and abilities to easily fabricate stories against friends for the advancement of the self, as Virag is able to; he does not want to be smart in the ways of deception, he is too good hearted for the job yet goes along with the plot as start witness because he is still eager enough to please his superiors. He is a heroic idiot because he ultimately relies on truth and lives in the end, though by that point he seems more willing to die than continue to live a life in which everything is suspect.

At the end of the film, Jozsef is told that he will be rehabilitated and his reply is, “I’d rather be hanged.” He is no longer interested in being a part of the pomp and circumstance of the incompetent regime in their march toward socialism and triumph over imperialism. It is difficult to pin point exactly how The Witness became such a cult film in Hungary or why more has not been written on it. Perhaps the only way I can begin to describe the phenomena is to consider that satire both confirms the events of a given historical or contemporary period and, by showcasing them in an over the top, extreme way, work to scorn, out of a type of rebellion against it, a regime that was once so greatly feared because it suspected everything and because anyone, at any time could become “an example.”

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Stepping Back to Examine the "Game of War"

Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White (1968)

Jancso’s The Red and the White (1968) is a difficult film, particularly for audiences accustomed to traditional narrative form and film editing that focuses on the psychology of characters. I found myself doing exactly what Horton contends that Jancso wants his audiences to forget about – becoming perplexed by the realization that I did not grasp the historical period of the film in a way that made it easy for me to understand the nature behind the fighting/conflict; in essence, to understand the “why?” of the actions unfolding before me. Though for the most part I could accurately distinguish between the Whites and the Reds, armed with the knowledge that Hungarians were fighting with the Reds for communism against the Whites, the anti-revolutionary forces, making this distinction did not make much of a difference. This may have been because the film was not edited with the intention of establishing identification or bias for one side or the other.

The Red and the White focuses on both sides and does not condemn either side or the “rules” they arbitrarily employ. A better understanding of this can be gained by analyzing how each side deals with internal conflict. In one scene, which we have somewhat discussed in class, a White soldier forces a Hungarian civilian to undress. Presumably he is about to sexually abuse or rape her, when he is shot on the spot for abusing the civilian population. Clearly, this establishes that there are some rules in war and that abuse of the civilian population somehow breaks them, though in an earlier sequence and in sequences throughout the rest of the film, games are frequently played with men’s lives. Reds are forced to undress and to run away so that they may be hunted, as if for sport, by the Whites. Likewise, there is a sense of propriety governing the actions of the Reds. In one scene, a Red officer is about to shoot a group of his fellow comrades for running away from the Whites, when another from within states, “You have no right to shoot them. We all ran.” This statement suggests that a few cannot be blamed for the actions of the masses, and that the actions of a few reflect those of the whole Red army. This mode of thinking may be the same employed by the whites when they shoot the officer sexually assaulting the Red woman; if one soldier commits the crime, the ideology of the entire group is jeopardized. Even this attempt to make sense of specific killings, however, does not lead to an end of questioning. The motives for other actions seem to be totally absurd, or at best, unclear in their wider effect upon the playing out of the broader conflict between Red and White forces.

It is intriguing to continue to think about the film in terms of modernism and formalism. In terms of camera movement as well as the logic behind the fighting, there is a formalist aesthetic. The camera consistently focuses on the landscape, relying on it to comment on or accentuate the action of the troops. Our attention is directly drawn to the location. Long takes are used so that groups of soldiers rather than individuals are viewed throughout most of the film; we cannot become emotionally involved or begin to formulate plots and sub plots for ourselves during viewing. This seems to be very important to Jancso. It is also something that must be consciously done, since a natural instinct would be to focus on individual reactions and allow them to represent opinions and reactions of the masses. The actions characters employ also have specific formulas. To cite an example that seemed to baffle most of us, the scene where the nurses were taken into the woods, made to change into formal gowns and to waltz with one another, was clearly pre-planned. However, the motivation is unclear. Why is this scene in the film and why is it considered to be a form of bizarre humiliation as Horton suggests? I am still baffled by this scene but I will agree that it is quite haunting. Perhaps it has something to do with isolation and beauty in the midst of this war. The nurses do not take sides, at least not until threatened and forced by Whites to tell who the Red soldiers are. Considering this, perhaps they represent the calm of the end to conflict, yet they are cut off/ isolated from the politics of the nature of this conflict, representing something unattainable that we are given a glimpse of in the isolated space of the woods. Perhaps I am reading too far into the sequence, but perhaps that is also Jancso’s point, that attempting to establish any definitive understanding of either both or even those on neither side, is futile.

As far as being a modernist work, I certainly never forgot that what I was viewing was a film. I felt alienated from the action in my inability to draw more specifically from knowledge of Hungarian history. The final scenes framed the film as an epic about war in general and about class struggle and taking action to stand against oppression – about being revolutionary in general, though it was set in the specific year 1919. In its conclusion, the film seems to affirm that attempts to eradicate class and the struggles surrounding it are as futile as attempts to end war. War and killing become accepted and normalized as if they fit into a larger formula in ways that are necessary, but unable to be totally understood. Perhaps the same statement is being made about the class system when the Red soldiers march to their deaths singing the International. In the final scene, a (presumably Red and ultimately victorious?) soldier stands saluting with his weapon – the struggle continues; it is part of a much larger game. I cannot seem to come to terms with this final image; it is this image that will haunt me every time I think about this film.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Redemption is Futile

Alicia Chmielewski

Elmar Klos and Jan Kadar,The Shop on Main Street(1966)

“I am sure that audiences will find it difficult to forget the white-haired, hard-of-hearing, and bewildered old lady with the innocent face. She is the most powerful reminder I know of fascism and its victims.”- Jan Kadar on The Shop on Main Street

Jan Kadar commented on the making of The Shop on Main Street (1966) by saying that personal accounts and memories of the horrors of fascism speak louder than statistics; they provide a realism and truthfulness that is too often changed by films attempting to make broad generalizations. The emotive struggles of individuals provide a more telling window into the lived experience of the time and place than a wide-scoped documentary style film could have the power to do. Whereas both types of films would undoubtedly carry strong images of destruction and despair, the imagery of tragedy brought into the lives of real characters whom we grow to identify with and love more closely mimics (or makes us remember) the personal loss of our own loved ones, forcing us to feel the deepest emotional impact possible through our greater identification with the horror.

Both the fear of and attraction to fascism, at least in so much as one becomes complicit with those imposing its ideology, are displayed by the tragic entrapment of Tono Brtko, as he becomes (as we discussed some in class) an everyman character standing in for countless other Slovaks who never wished to bring harm to anyone yet allowed themselves to become trapped by fear and confusion, submitting to popular opinion over personal integrity. During the first few sequences of the film, Tono refuses to go into town, partly because he does not wish to see the monument under construction because it is being built as a beacon of nationalism, including a fascist aesthetic and partly because he does not want to see his brother-in-law, Mark, a local government official supporting the Fuhrer. We immediately see the tension between Tono and his nagging wife Evelyn who, though not presented as inherently wishing any harm on anyone, is in full support of stereotypes and laws working to allow Aryans to grow rich by displacing the Jews. For Evelyn, the sole concern is for her own kind; Jews are “others” and cannot be trusted. She has become totally indoctrinated and cannot understand why her husband has to resist.

Slowly, Tono begins to see his situation in another light when Mark visits, handing him the papers, after bringing decadent gifts and drinking to excess in Tono’s less extravagant home, which declare him the new Aryan owner of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. Tono is temporarily excited by the prospects of getting rich by owning a business and does not immediately have any qualms about telling Mrs. Lautmann that she must give up her business and leave because she is a Jew and there is a new law against Jews owning businesses. However, after discovering, through Mr. Kucher that his brother in law has played a mean trick on him, giving his access to an unprofitable shop, Tono is persuaded not to bother the old woman about leaving but to co-own the shop, receiving money from the Jewish community which currently supports Mrs. Lautmann so she will be able to retain her lifestyle as shop-owner.

Although Tono acknowledges from the beginning that this is a dangerous arrangement, evidenced by the fact that he makes up stories to tell his wife about why he has not gotten the keys to the shop and the way he frantically places a “closed for inventory” sign on the building on Sabbath, he does not seem to fully realize the extent to which he is in danger until he hears Mark and other party officials telling the townspeople that Jew lovers are worse than Jews themselves and that anyone who goes against the law will be severely punished.

What happens soon after to Tono is almost Biblical in his denial of friends who have also been aiding the Jews (Kuchar) and the somewhat prophetic dream he has with Mrs. Lautmann telling him that “fear is the root of all evil” just as he is sucked further into his own fear and psychologically haunted by his role in resisting the law. Though horror is written on his face as he sees the gruesome image of Kuchar with a “Jew Lover” sign pinned to his shirt, Tono cannot do anything to object. As a result, he becomes trapped by the guilt over his non-action as well as his fear to act on the behalf of these personal friends.

In the final few sequences, Tono’s fear pushes him to the brink of madness as Mrs. Lautmann appears to remain completely oblivious to her own danger until she sees all of her friends gathered outside the shop and runs to prayer, remembering the pogroms. Tono’s immediate response is to protect the old woman, but as his nerves intensify he is pushed into a rage during which he resolves, “It’s either me or her. She has to go,” and warns her, “Don’t make me throw you out!” Throughout his ravings back and forth, in one instance attempting to make Mrs. Lautmann realize her own danger, in another desperately attempting to persuade her to go outside, Tono adopts a self-pitying attitude, wondering why he has been placed in such a position.

And there is no escape from entrapment to be found for Tono, though those who actively take part in sending the Jews to concentration camps and directly sending them to death, as represented by Mark, walk away without a care weighing their consciences. Ultimately Tono accidentally kills Mrs. Lautmann when he forces her into a closet after the Jews have been driven from town, so that she would not be discovered to both her own and his detriment. Tono opens the closet once danger has passed to find Mrs. Lautmann dead and consequently hangs himself.

In spite of these tragic events, however, I take a different stance on the issue of whether there is any redemption to be found in such events. While I hold that there is no redemption to be found for those trapped by fear and continuing to comply with the extermination of the Jews and the basic tenets of fascism, such as Evelyn or Mark, a futile sort of personal redemption is found for both Mrs. Lautmann (who doesn’t really need redeeming at all) and Tono.

Just before being forced into the closet, Mrs. Lautmann loses her fear of those whom she knows wish her harm; she is determined to close the shop on Sabbath, valuing her beliefs and sense of moral right in spite of the fact that officials are just outside. Though her death was tragic, it did not come as a direct result of a fascist hand. Mrs. Lautmann was martyred while maintaining complete innocence and faith, like countless other Jews who survived this moment only to directly witness the deaths of their loved ones, yet with the dignity of not being subjected to the same torments in a concentration camp.

Tono’s redemption comes as he realizes what has become of him and decides to commit suicide. His suicide releases him from the type of world that could permit such evils. He escapes entrapment through death and returns to a state of no fear with Mrs. Lautmann in a dreamlike eternity.

This analysis of the final scene remains problematic in its shred of redemption, however, because for all the suffering of the entire film, nothing has really changed. Tono and Mrs. Lautmann may be at peace, but only because they are released from the horrors, not because anything changes to make the world less horrific or the simultaneous fascination and fear of fascism less destructive. Nothing changes in the broader context of history and that realization is what creates additional tension in our viewing of the ending. We want to be optimistic, but we realize that no ending would have been able to offer escape in light of such personal tragedy; we are disillusioned as Tono was upon first acknowledging what fascism and nationalism were bringing about. Though released from history in her death, Mrs. Lautmann’s face remains engraved in my memory, there is no escaping her haunting presence.